Life imitating art: how film influences our politics
Illustration: Dorothy Zhang

Nearly a decade before the fateful day the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón gave us his dystopian masterpiece: Children of Men. It showed a future Britain plagued by an obsession with keeping immigrants out and its own citizens in. After watching this some years ago, observing the politics of the EU referendum unfold in 2016 seemed to be a case of life imitating art. However, it was more than that.

Film is not just a tool for entertainment. It’s a mechanism for an effective critique of societal issues that can act as a prism to influence the viewer’s political beliefs. Film engages us with politics, making it digestible and relatable. By using entertainment to highlight some of the most critical matters of the day, the screen can convey compelling issues and stark messages to wider audiences— especially powerful if the issues don’t impact us directly. This is crucial at a time when young people in the UK are less likely to be active in politics, with around 47% of 18-24-year-olds voting in the 2019 General Election. Turnout among the over-65s was 74%.

Film also humanises politics. When we watch a film, we buy into the cinematic world we’re presented with. Having issues that we often hear about in the media visualised on-screen helps us to understand their real-world impacts on normal people. Cinema allows us to see in more grounded terms how politics affects our day-to-day lives and the experiences of others. As a device for politicising people, it can help us see perspectives other than those we’re used to. These new perspectives could be from people of different nationalities, genders, or classes.

While we may hear certain things being endlessly discussed in the news, to many young people they can seem like very abstract concepts that don’t affect them directly. This was the view I took when I was younger. However, watching films during my teenage years made politics a very human issue to me and I realised that to be apolitical was a form of privilege that I should abandon. Being a white, middle-class man meant I could choose to be more disengaged. Those who don’t share these traits live more inherently political lives, often more affected by government decision-making and institutional biases. Film has not only had a profound impact on particular political views of mine, it’s given me a passion for politics more widely, and helped me to realise that it was not enough to be passively supportive of causes I cared about.

Children of Men

Children of Men is a prime example of a film that sparks a more active interest in politics. Set in 2027, the film shows a world that has fallen into geopolitical chaos following all women becoming infertile across the globe. Terrorism and war rage across the world where “only Britain soldiers on”. We see an impoverished and authoritarian Britain, with highly militarised police having a complete obsession with keeping immigrants out at all costs. Those that make it in are treated like animals and sent to brutal internment camps. It is dystopian, yet it’s not an entirely abstract vision of an alternate country either. The film provides a clear, grounded warning of what Britain could become if we continue on the current path of recent events.

Children of Men is truly astonishing film-making. Cuarón somehow manages to make what we see feel simultaneously cinematic and startlingly realistic. One six-minute tracking shot follows the characters through a refugee camp. Purposefully shaky camerawork and specks of blood hitting the lens (an accident which cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki convinced Cuarón to keep in) makes the audience feel like they are actually walking with them. This realism makes the dystopia that much more plausible. His vision is so powerful simply because it’s so possible. As Slovenian political philosopher Slavoj Žižek said of this film in the DVD commentary, “A good portrait is more than you are, yourself, and I think this is what the film does with our reality… It simply makes reality more what it already is”.

The issue of immigration is not a new one and was a critical concern at the time of the film’s release in 2006 – up to 45% of Britons believed it to be the single most important issue facing the UK above the economy, the NHS, housing, and defence. Cuarón’s film was brilliantly relevant even then. However, here in 2020 post-Brexit Britain, it is uncanny. We as a country are more divided than ever and also increasingly inward-facing. Our EU membership and the immigration it brought has been blamed for a plethora of problems from low-paid jobs, an underfunded NHS, and terrorism. Due to this, immigrants and refugees are heavily demonised in the media. After watching Children of Men, you realise that whatever your views on immigration, these are just ordinary individuals who want the best possible lives for themselves. There is no malicious intent behind someone moving to another country and it’s often done out of desperation rather than desire.

Illustration: Alice Chaplin

When I first saw Children of Men as a teenager, I didn’t fully understand some of its themes. Even so, the film was so visceral that it remained in my thoughts long after watching it and I found it motivating enough to proactively engage further in politics. Having been surrounded by claims that immigrants steal jobs and are a drain on the NHS all my life, it was shocking to find out that the average migrant worker from the European Economic Area contributes more to the economy than the average UK adult. There have been studies that have concluded that immigrants were found on average to pay more tax and place less demand on public services than the native population.

Films like this formed some of my earliest political influences and I believe it’s important not to neglect film as a legitimate tool for shaping political ideas. Film’s accessibility means that someone who has less exposure to politics can view serious issues in an engaging way which makes them easier to discuss and relate to. A more recent example of this is Bong Joon-Ho’s sensational hit Parasite, which follows the desperately poor Kim family as they slowly infiltrate a rich CEO’s family home by replacing all of their household staff. This seminal look at class divide is hilarious but ultimately very impactful. We see the harsh consequences of socio-economic inequality and how this can ultimately drive people to take extreme, violent measures. Parasite is one of many influences on the recent resurgence of more mainstream criticism of capitalism, having sparked countless conversations about class divide and how the issue can be solved.

Politics can be a daunting subject. It often feels like you need a lot of history and prior knowledge needed to join the conversation. Film transcends this barrier. It allows us to understand political issues in a manageable way and can be used as a great entry point into politics. By humanising politics, it demonstrates that everyone shares some common ground and can perhaps go some way towards healing divisions. We as a nation have become increasingly polarised in recent years but film can provide respite from this. If, like many people, you have more free time than expected at the moment, now is the time to challenge yourself with more political films. You could discover that a new perspective may deepen your understanding of issues you thought you knew— or open you up to entirely new ones.